We live in an age of distraction. Smart phones, the internet, and a wealth of instant communication tools are constantly vying for our attention and making it harder than ever to stay focused for long periods of time. Long periods of deep focus, however, are incredibly valuable.
Using my time more productively is a skill I’m actively trying to develop. It’s not easy, especially while working at a computer all day where so many distractions are readily available. Here are some specifics habits I’ve developed that have been improving my ability to stay focused.
0. Forgive yourself
Most of the products you interact with on your phone and browser are explicitly designed to get you hooked. So forgive yourself for being so readily distracted. It’s not a failure of your will-power, it’s just human nature being exploited by big tech.
1 . Hide your phone
This is the most simple tip, but probably the most effective. Make your phone invisible.
Don’t leave it on your desk. Don’t keep it in your pocket. Keep it out of sight and out of mind.
If your phone is visible, even if it’s off or in “do not disturb” mode, you’ll still be aware of it. You’ll still find yourself glancing at it or reaching for it out of habit. These small distractions are enough to knock you out of deep focus. Just hide the damn thing. Do you really need to be instantly reachable all day long?
I now keep my phone zipped up in my backpack under my desk. All notifications are turned off except for phone calls with the sound on so I don’t have to worry about missing an emergency call (spoiler: no one ever calls). I still sometimes find myself habitually reaching for it in my pocket but, because it’s not there, it’s a stark reminder that I’m distracted.
2. Log out of everything, always
So now your phone is in a hard to reach spot. You’ve added friction between you and that distraction factory. That’s a good start but you still have the whole internet at your fingertips and, in case you haven’t noticed, there are a lot of things to distract you on the internet. Increase the friction of distractions by logging out of everything.
Yes, everything. Even Gmail. And especially Slack.
If you’re anything like me, you probably have a habit of navigating to certain websites whenever you have a spare moment and a browser open (e.g. Facebook, Twitter, Gmail, Slack, Reddit, etc.). I think we can all agree that you will be fine (if not better off) if you don’t check these every 15 minutes. That knowledge alone, however, is not enough to make you kick the habit. Sometimes you’re not aware of what you’re doing until you’ve been scrolling through your Twitter feed for 15 minutes.
By staying logged out, the extra friction of entering your login information will make you acutely aware of how much you mindlessly navigate to these sites. Do you really need to check Twitter right now? Didn’t you just check your email 15 minutes ago? Weren’t you in the middle of something more important? Get back to work.
I automate this by having my browser erase my history after every close. So now I have to type ‘twitter.com’ and login with my email and password instead of just hitting ‘t’ and ‘enter’. This extra friction increases my awareness of how I’m spending my time and puts an additional barrier between me and an endless-scrolling-distraction-spiral.
3. Do one thing at a time and write it down
No multi-tasking. Pick one well-defined task and do only that. Remove all distractions. Close all your windows that are not relevant. Context switching is a bane to productivity.
Write down your current goal. The thing that you want to pay your full attention to. Write it down somewhere obvious where you can access it as easy as possible. When you find yourself distracted (e.g. you reach for your phone, or navigate to your inbox), refer to that goal and ask yourself if what you’re currently doing is related. If it’s not, stop doing it.
I started doing this with a text document always open with my current goal written down. I also happen to spend a lot of time working from the command line, so I added an additional reminder that displays my current goal every time I open a new terminal.
4. Schedule time for your inboxes
Checking and responding to emails can be daunting enough, but most of us have a smorgasbord of other inboxes too (e.g. Slack, LinkedIn, Twitter). Schedule a time in your day for checking and responding to everything in your inboxes. Try your best to stick only to that schedule.
This prevents you from disrupting your workflow during the day to compulsively check your inboxes and get distracted. Plus, setting an explicit goal to check your email will allow you take the time to fully address everything in your inbox. Then you can go on with your day with less mental clutter knowing that everything in your inbox has been addressed.
The evolution of this habit is to explicitly schedule time in your day for all your tasks and goals. Having a time scheduled for a task unburdens your mind from storing it in RAM and you can focus better on what your current priority is.
5. Schedule time for distractions
I’ve worked from home about quite a bit, and that often meant no clear distinction between work hours and leisure hours. This can lead to the feeling that you can (and even should) be in work-mode at all hours of the day. If you accept that any time of the day is an acceptable work time, then of course you can get distracted right now because you have literally all day to accomplish your work goals.
Have a clear cut-off time where you stop working. Let yourself relax guilt free. This will force you to use your work time more efficiently. The comfort in knowing you will have time later to do whatever you want will help you stave off distractions.
6. Keep a daily journal
These habits work great for me, but everyone is different, so it’s important to keep experimenting until you find habits that are effective for you. In order to experiment, however, you need to start measuring your progress so you’ll know if a new habit is helping or hindering you in your quest for better focus.
Keep a daily journal and track your wins and fails of the day, as well as the new habits you’re trying out. This will force you to think critically about how you spent your day and how you wish you had spent your day. Eventually, you can look back on old journal entries and be proud of the progress you’ve made.
I also recommend pairing a daily journal with other automated ways of tracking how you spend your time. Try browser extensions and apps that time (and limit) your usage of certain websites and apps.
These habits can seem simple but they are not easy to form. I still struggle with them daily. When I succeed, however, there are noticeable increases in my productivity.
What daily habits have helped you focus better?